This Zia Pueblo Storage Jar provides the perfect centerpiece for an engaging discussion that challenges students to examine the importance of traditional knowledge shared from one generation to the next as well as the value of new ideas and innovations.
Intended Age GroupElementary (grades K-5)
Length of LessonOne 30 minute lesson
Standards AreaSocial Studies
Students will be able to:
- identify the construction method used to create Storage Jar;
- describe how a coil pot is made;
- explain why transmitting knowledge across generations can be valuable;
- differentiate between what is traditional and what is innovative about this storage jar; and
- relate their observations back to their own lives.
- Warm-up: Display the image of Storage Jar and invite students to look carefully and share what they observe. Ask: What do you notice? How many colors were used to make this storage jar? What are they? Have you ever made a piece of pottery? How did you do it? What are some of the steps to making a finished piece? How do you think this jar would have been used?
- Share with students that Storage Jar was made by a member of the Zia Pueblo named Isadora Medina around 1930. Zia potters are masters at making large vessels by hand. Medina shaped her pot using the coil method. After mixing powdered clay to the proper consistency with water and temper (a material used to improve the plasticity of the clay; Zia potters typically crush basalt from a nearby mesa), she pressed the clay into a small mold to form the base of the jar and next began adding coils of clay to enlarge the jar. She then pinched, smoothed, and burnished the surface before firing. Traditionally, creating pottery was the work of women in Zia Pueblo culture and women would learn the art form from their older female relatives, but today some Zia Pueblo men are also potters in addition to the women potters. Ask: What are some things you have learned to do from older members of your family such as parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles? Do you think any of these skills could be important to you as you grow up? Why do you think older generations teach younger generations? How does it make you feel to learn from your family?
- Share with students that the Zia Pueblo Indians, like other Pueblo Indians of the Southwest, were not nomadic. They built permanent homes and farmed the land. From very early on, storage jars were an essential household item for storing food and water and for serving meals. Knowing how to mix clay, form the jar and fire it to make it watertight were important skills for Zia women. Not only did the clay storage jars help the Zia manage their food supply, they also helped families survive during lean times as the storage jars could be traded for food and household supplies. Ask: What are some skills you are learning that will help you when you grow up? How do you think you will use these skills in the future? Are there other ways you learn essential life skills?
- 4. Invite students to consider the interaction between traditional knowledge passed down in a culture and new influences from the outside that spark innovation. Display images of other Zia storage jars. Ask: Looking closely at these examples of Zia pottery, what elements are the same? Decoration? Colors? Shape? What does this tell you about what some of the traditions in Zia pottery might be? Now let’s look closely at the bird motif which is common in Zia pottery beginning in the 1820s. What do you notice that is different about the bird image on the storage jar by Isadora Medina? Why do you think Medina chose to change the style of her bird? Students should notice that the style of the bird image on the jar by Medina is different than that of the other Zia jars due to the segmented style of the wings. Share with students that the style of Medina’s bird design is similar to how Egyptian artists depicted birds, leading some to wonder if Medina was inspired by images she might have seen in the newspaper of the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt around the time this jar was created.
- 5. Share with students that bird motifs became popular when the Zia began trading with outsiders and even tourists who came on the railway that reached Zia lands in the 1820s. Ask: Knowing that Isadora Medina might have created this storage jar to sell, why do you think she might have used a style that is different than the traditional Zia style? Do you think there might have been advantages to adopting this new style? Have you ever changed the way you did something when you saw a new way it could be done? What is an example? Why did you make the change? Remind students that there are no “right” answers to questions like these and one will never know the exact reasons that prompted Medina’s artistic decisions.
- 6. Wrap up the discussion with a review of what elements of this Zia storage jar are elements that Medina would have learned from her family. This list could include shape, construction method (coil method), coloring and the inclusion of a bird motif (but this is also where Medina innovates). Ask students to also identify how Medina brought something new to the world of Zia pottery. Ask: What do you think is more valuable, traditional methods and knowledge or new ideas and innovations? Why do you have this opinion? Would anyone say that it is best to have both traditional knowledge and new ideas? Why? What are some modern day examples of how people have taken traditional knowledge and added something new?
- White board and dry erase markers to record discussion notes
- Images of Zia Pueblo storage jars and a way to display them for the class
- About the Art section on Storage Jar (included with the lesson plan) or student access to this part of Creativity Resource online
- One color copy of the artwork for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Social Studies
- Ask questions, share information and discuss ideas about the past and present
- Become familiar with United States historical eras, groups, individuals, ideas and themes
- Become familiar with United States family and cultural traditions in the past and present
- Visual Arts
- Observe and Learn to Comprehend
- Relate and Connect to Transfer
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
About the Art
Who Made It?
Isadora Medina was born around 1850–55 and died in 1951. Little is known about this Zia Pueblo artist, and this is the only known pot with her signature.
Historically, Zia Pueblo pottery, similar to other Pueblo pottery, was used to store food, hold water, and serve meals. Pottery was also valuable for trade. Members of the Zia Pueblo today credit the women of Zia for saving the pueblo during the bleak years of the early 1900s by trading pottery for food and other essentials. Prior to about 1940, only Zia women made pottery, although men contributed as painters. Today some Zia men are potters.
What Inspired It?
Much about this jar is traditional—its construction using the coil method; the olla shape, with its nearly spherical body and short vertical neck; the red, cream, and black colors; and the bird motif—but the artist added her own creative stamp. Although the bird looks like a Zia roadrunner, its segmented body is reminiscent of an Egyptian bird. The discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 dominated international news, and it’s possible that Isadora Medina drew inspiration for her bird design from photos of this event. Though we can’t be sure about this, the piece is unique in its decoration among Pueblo pottery in general, and among Zia pottery in particular.
The red underbelly is characteristic of Zia pottery. The red color comes from naturally occurring iron oxide in the clay. Medina applied watered-down clay, called slip, to the surface of the vessel before firing it. Then she hand-polished the surface with a burnishing stone so it would appear semi-glossy after firing. On the upper portion of the jar, Medina used a cream-colored slip. This, too, would have been hand-burnished before firing.
Zia potters are masters at making large vessels by hand. Medina shaped her pot using the coil method. After mixing powdered clay with water and temper (a material used to improve the plasticity of the clay; in Zia, typically crushed basalt from a nearby mesa), she pressed the clay into a small mold to form the base of the jar and began adding coils of clay to enlarge the jar. Then she pinched, smoothed, and burnished the surface before firing. Certain details of construction are practically unique to Zia. For example, Zia potters add a coil to the outside surface of the preceding coil when building a vessel. At other pueblos, potters usually add coils to the inside.
Beginning in the early 1820s, “realistic” bird motifs began appearing in Zia pottery, probably as a response to tourist preferences. Zia artists have identified these birds as parrots, raptors, swallows, and roadrunners, to name a few. Medina’s bird most closely resembles the roadrunner, which is sacred to the Zias and is also the state bird of New Mexico. However, Medina chose to segment the wings and tail feathers of her bird, similar to how Egyptians depicted feathers, leading to speculation that she may have been inspired by photos she saw from King Tutankhamen’s tomb.